Of the many mass brutalities visited on their people by totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century, the famine of 1958- 1961 that claimed more than thirty thousand lives in China cannot be matched for either the deliberate cruelty of the Marxist dogmatists responsible or for the degradation suffered by the victims who ate grass, bark, and even other starving humans. Becker has read many books, examined important documents, and interviewed numerous survivors, and using this information he has written a frank account of atrocities that were concealed for twenty years.
China has known many famines. Historical documents show that between 108 b.c.e. and c.e. 1911, China endured 1,828 major famines. Although natural disasters certainly played a role, gouging landlords, bandits, and crippling taxes did much to worsen bad conditions. Five million Chinese people are estimated to have starved during World War II, and in nineteen provinces the famine continued under Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government even after the Japanese surrendered in 1945.
In 1924, the Communists and the Nationalists were still united, and Mao Zedong argued for the need to redistribute the land. Although scholars today debate just how brutal Mao was in the 1920’s and 1930’s in redistributing land held by his Communists, in the years from 1935 until 1949, Mao pursued strict Stalinist policies in eliminating the richest peasants and encouraging class warfare among them. Becker estimates that two to five million landlords were killed after the Communist triumph in 1949. The peasants then enjoyed a brief period of comparatively prosperous autonomy, but a harsh collectivization soon followed.
Becker says that Mao repeated Joseph Stalin’s earlier mistakes with the Russian peasants. In 1918, the Russian peasants had resisted turning their surplus grain over to the government, and the Communists had pitted the poorer peasants against the richer kulaks. Grain production plummeted, and by 1921 millions were starving, forcing Nikolay Bukharin in 1923 to promise the peasants a new deal. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin died in 1924, and in 1929 Stalin renewed a crushing collectivization to finance his ambitious five-year plan of industrialization. The peasants destroyed their property and their animals in defiance, and Stalin closed the peasant churches and suppressed ethnic traditions in peasant culture. In the period 1931-1933, the state seized grain supplies and sold them (as Mao was to do). The terrible food shortages that resulted—especially in the fertile Ukraine—led to widespread starvation in 1932-1933, forcing Stalin to stop the grain appropriations in 1934. Three years later, Stalin initiated the Moscow show trials, a direct consequence, Becker believes, of the famine. The records indicate that up to eleven million Russian peasants died between 1930 and 1937, a virtual genocide in the Ukraine.
Mao’s first collectivization lasted from 1949 until 1958 and was accompanied by the substitution of party meetings and agitprop drama for the peasants’ traditional religious rites. Despite opposition in the Party, Mao was convinced that only collective farms could fuel the nation’s industrial effort. The devastating results—average grain yields fell to below those of 1931-1937—simply hardened Mao’s determination and led him to announce “The Great Leap Forward” in 1958.
Mao’s great leap was doomed from the beginning by his embrace of the absurd agricultural practices developed in Russia under Stalin, mainly by the pseudo-scientist Trofim Lysenko, who rejected genetics as bourgeois pretentiousness. Ridiculous experiments—such as crossing a cotton plant with a tomato to produce red cotton, and a Yorkshire pig with a Holstein Friesian cow—ensured failure. Intense close planting of seeds, coupled with deep plowing, produced meager results. Other wrongheaded measures included fertilizing with rubbish, contriving ill-designed farm tools, ignoring common sense in land management, waging war on the “four evils” (birds, rats, insects, and flies), and building shoddy dams. All these measures backfired, but the false reports of sycophantic bureaucrats kept exacerbating the peasants’ misery. Grain production dropped in 1959 by thirty million long tons, but the lying officials appropriated everything and persecuted the peasants. Deaths from starvation peaked in early 1960. Even so, Mao increased the pressure to produce, while the Party acted paralyzed.
The peasants hated the communes, which Mao created from Karl Marx’s proposal in the Communist Manifesto of “agro-cities.” The...
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